“What were you wearing?”
A business suit, jeans, a sweater, a sweatshirt, joggers, athletic shorts, a tank top, pajamas, a dress. You’re going to work, you’re going to class, you’re going to a party, you’re going to a friends house or you’re going to bed. Something is about to change. Something is about to become a plot point in the line of your life — one that is uninvited, one that is cruel, one that you did not expect and one that you will never erase.
“What were you wearing?”
The question hangs in the air: seemingly simple, mundane, usual. Four words, 17 letters and a question mark — all dangling in blank space. But in many situations, this question is really rather loaded — provoking anger, sadness, discomfort and confusion.
Many survivors of sexual assault will hear this question, asked by a friend, an employer, a police officer, a family member, an investigator, inviting the notion that perhaps if the victim was wearing something revealing, they were inviting the violence. The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s one night only exhibit "What Were You Wearing?" looks to start a conversation that silences that generalization.
UMMA, in partnership with University and national organization HeforShe, brought the exhibit to the University, as its message resonates greatly with our current campus and national climate. The exhibit was originally started at the University of Kansas by Jen Brockman. It features replications of outfits that sexual assault survivors we wearing and quotes from their stories, gathered from interviews by Brockman.
The exhibit looks to deconstruct the notion that people are only assaulted if they are wearing something revealing, and a victim could have been “asking for it” based on what they were wearing. There were around twenty outfits hung on a rack around the space, with the stories posted above them. Of the outfits, the majority were everyday clothes — jeans, oversized sweatshirts, workout clothes, shorts and t-shirts. Of the stories posted above the outfits, some especially thought provoking quotes included:
“I was wearing Nike shorts and a concert sweatshirt. Seems so normal. So every day. It was too, just any other day, except for this. Except for what happened.”
“The first time I was wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt. The next time, years later, I was wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt. I wear blue sometimes when I kickbox or when I need to be assertive. Even today I am wearing blue, because they don’t get to take away my voice, my favorite color or my ability to say no and mean it. These things are mine.”
“White t-shirt and black basketball shorts. It was always the same outfit. It was always at the rec center. I trusted him. My mom trusted him.”
The exhibit does a wonderful job of expressing that it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what you're wearing, it doesn't matter where you are, it doesn't matter the circumstance. No means no, and assault is never the survivor’s fault. Assault can happen to anyone, at any time. The exhibit also provided an array of experiences through different ages, locations and circumstances –– to prove that this can and does happen anywhere.
From the wide array of individuals (both male and female) whose stories are included in the exhibit, it is clear that there is no one specific circumstance for sexual assault. Those who attempt to define assault as a singular thing generalize the implications of assault and associate or trivialize experiences are wrong. These stories being told (and others) are personal, absolutely heartbreaking and not uncommon on college campuses.
The sexual assault climate on the University’s campus is like that of many other universities, which is both saddening and unfortunate. According to the University’s Campus Climate Report from 2015, 22.5 percent of female undergrad and 6.8 percent of male undergrad students experienced a form of non consensual sexual activity in the past 12 months. And the 2017 Annual Security Report stated that there were 26 cases of rape, 22 of fondling, 29 of stalking and 29 of dating violence on our campus last year. Keep in mind, these are the numbers of people who felt comfortable and safe reporting these crimes. With this, HeforShe saw a great need for a larger conversation about these issues; which inspired bringing the exhibit to this campus.
As seen by the statistics above, there are major issues with assault and domestic violence on this campus. It is terrifying how, in today’s world, sexual assault has grown, maintained itself and become normalized on college campuses everywhere. Recently, University of Michigan Interfraternity Council suspended all social activities and pledging activities due to several alarming incidents — one of them, which is unfortunately no surprise, is a growth in cases of sexual assault.
Erasing the stigma and normalization of the culture of sexual assault is a step that the exhibit at UMMA this past Monday looked to take. It is a long battle, but one that must start somewhere. The exhibit provided a space for conversation, education for those do not feel well informed on these issues and the larger message: Assault can and does happen to anyone. It is not normal, it does not have a specific circumstance, it cannot ever be justified and it should not go unnoticed.
This exhibit and its message is incredibly important right now, not only because of the problems occurring on our campus, but also the climate surrounding assault nationally. For the first time, sexual assault is being brought into the conversation on a national scale. In Hollywood and major news corporations, powerful men have been fired for sexual assault allegations, and people are finding space to share their personal stories of sexual assault. Campaigns like “#MeToo” have spread all over social media, empowering individuals and validating the stark reality of the situation. It seems that more and more individuals are being encouraged to come forward with their stories so that the pervasiveness of these issues can finally be seen.
And this is only the start.